J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Samuel Whittemore and Memory Creep

The Rev. Samuel Abbott Smith included a stirring rendition of Samuel Whittemore’s story in his 1864 address West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775. Unfortunately, that telling exaggerated the old man’s actions:

He lay under cover of a wall near where the Russell school-house now stands, and fired some half dozen shots at the enemy. He had just loaded his gun, when he heard the wall rattle and saw five soldiers of the flank-guard approaching him shoulder to shoulder. Beside being eighty years old he was lame, and knew that it was of no use to attempt to escape.

With his musket he shot one of the soldiers, and, instantly drawing his pistol, fired at another. He aimed the second pistol and discharged it just as they fired at him; one of the soldiers was seen to clap his hand to his breast. As he fired the third time a ball struck him in the head, and he fell senseless.
So in a single second both Whittemore and a soldier fired their guns, Whittemore’s ball hit a soldier who grabbed his chest, and a soldier’s ball hit Whittemore on the head and knocked him out. And someone who remained in Menotomy to speak to Smith saw all that. Wow!
The soldiers beat him with their muskets, bayoneted him, and left him for dead. After the British had passed by, our people, finding that there was some life left in him, carried him to Cooper’s tavern, where the surgeon, Dr. [Simon] Tufts of Medford, said that it was useless to dress his wounds, for he could not live. He dressed the wounds however, and the old hero lived eighteen years after this, dying in 1793 at the age of 98.

The people of that time accounted for his longevity by saying that “He bled like an ox” from his wounds, and through the new blood formed got a new lease of life.
Smith gave his source for at least part of the story as “F. H. Whittemore,” apparently a descendant. But the obituary I quoted yesterday said he shot two soldiers, not three. That death notice must have come from Samuel Whittemore’s immediate family and friends, and they had no reason to downplay or conceal flattering details.

Smith’s account displays what I call “memory creep,” in which stories become slightly better as they pass from one teller to another—at each stage a bit more exciting and the stakes more important.

The next version of Whittemore’s tale appeared in an 1870 family history and an 1880 History of Arlington by Benjamin and William R. Cutter. They also gave the old man two pistols, and wrote that his surgeons dressed “one shot wound and thirteen bayonet wounds.”

Strangely, the Cutters started their account by quoting a version of Whittemore’s Centinel obituary, which said he had been stabbed “6 or 8” times with a bayonet. How did eight wounds grow to thirteen between 1793 and 1870? Memory creep.

In 1893 B. B. Whittemore published a genealogy of the Whittemore family (published by “Francis P. Whittemore, Book and Job Printer” of Nashua). He included Samuel Whittemore’s birthdate in 1696, and said he was 96 years old when he died. Yet that book also said he was “At the age of 80” during the battle in 1775. Memory creep even overcame mathematics.

Are we doing better today? Well, the problem doesn’t seem to be getting worse—I haven’t found any tale of 90-year-old Samuel Whittemore firing a cannon at a company of redcoats before he’s shot through the head, only to be revived through leeches. This webpage by the Arlington Historical Commission combines the most solid information from the most reliable sources. On the other hand:
  • This stone marker in Arlington follows the Rev. Mr. Smith’s address by saying Whittemore killed three British soldiers and died at 98.
  • The 2005 Massachusetts law naming Whittemore as official state hero repeated the errors in his obituary, saying he was “over 80 years old” during the battle and 99 when he died.
In Massachusetts we don’t merely print the legend; we give it the force of law! But Whittemore’s bravery and longevity never needed exaggeration.


Greg said...

This is one of my favorite blogs. Your consistently produce great content about April 19.
-Greg Aimo

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! I’ve got a couple more 19 April topics, but I hope to move on to the siege of Boston and Bunker Hill by, well, Bunker Hill Day.

Tess said...

J.L., Great post! I heard about Whittemore from a source I'm pretty sure was quoting Smith, and unfortunately I believed every word! Thanks for clearing things up. I definitely have a greater respect for Whittemore's life now, and will keep both eyes open in my future reading. Yet again, you have amazed me with your posts, and I greatly anticipate your topics on the siege of Boston.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment! Whittemore’s story has prompted a series of reactions from me over the years. When I first read it, it was simply stirring. Then when I realized that some versions were exaggerated, I became got skeptical of the whole tale. Yet more research shows that the basic facts about Whittemore’s wounds are probably true. Admirers of the man ended up doing his memory a disservice by giving curmudgeons like me reason to doubt it.

Rachel said...

It's funny how history can get turned into legend (such as "King" Arthur).
Reading your blog was a good read, and I know I'm a year late, but thanks.
The best version I've ever read was on this site: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/whittemore.html

PKienle said...

Hello -
Due to the proliferation of Sam Whittemore, "Badass," posts these days, I will overcome my reluctance to comment on his story.
The "Badass of the Week" version of the Samuel Whittemore legend menioned in the previous post is so strewn with inaccuracies that it should be completely disregarded.
Whittemore was born NOT in England, but in Charlestown in 1696, part of the flourishing Whittemore clan based in that town.
The very reliable and incredibly thorough Whittemore family genealogy published in serial form in the 1953-1954 editions of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1953, pp. 28-30) notes that Whittemore belonged to a military unit termed "the Royal Dragoons" before the Revolution. Paige's History of Cambridge (p. 668) terms him "Captain of Dragoons," which seems closer to the truth. I have not located any published material on his service with what was most likely a provincial unit involved in the 1745 Louisburg expedition. Although I do not have my notes with me at the moment, I do not recall finding Samuel Whittemore in any of the Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts's very useful reference works on Massachusetts officers and soldiers in the French Wars of the first half of the 18th century.
If anyone can source the detailed stories about his Louisburg exploits and his English birth, found in blog posts such as the one mentioned, I'd be grateful.